Filmgoers can enjoy a grown-up Halloween treat this weekend when the National Theatre version of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. In the live National Theatre production, actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated in the roles of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his zombie-like Creature, and the Film Center will screen each of the two filmed versions of the play on different days over the weekend.
Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Miller won 2012 Olivier Best Actor awards for their dual roles in the “Frankenstein” production, which was part of the National Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Danny Boyle, who won an Oscar for his movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” directed the National Theatre production, which marked his return to the theater after 15 years as a filmmaker. He collaborated with playwright Nick Dear, whose work includes “The Last Days of Don Juan.” The result is a retooled version of a story about a scientist’s ambition to create life that almost instantly captured the public’s imagination when it was published in 1818 and has held onto it for almost 200 years.
The film of the original, sold-out London play that will be screened this weekend follows multiple stage versions of Shelley’s gothic novel that have been produced over the centuries. But the 1931 movie version of the horror tale, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, has created the vision of Frankenstein best known to today’s public. The cinematic Creature’s squared head, sutured face, and bolted neck have created a memorably scary image of a human being brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein from human body parts. Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody of the Frankenstein myth in “Young Frankenstein” further reinforced the earlier film version’s iconic power.
Director Boyle and playwright Dear have chosen to diverge from the 1931 movie in a number of ways. In their version, the Creature comes alive standing upright in a 15-minute birthing scene. During a pre-performance National Theatre interview with the director and the playwright, Mr. Dear explained that he drew inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man after Mr. Boyle vetoed having the Creature lie on an operating table. The celebrated da Vinci drawing depicts a male figure superimposed on a square and a circle and is intended to represent ideal human proportions.
In the Boyle/Dear adaptation, the Creature also speaks, as he does in the novel, instead of grunting as the movie version represents him. By giving the Creature a voice, the director and playwright make the story unfold from his point of view rather than Dr. Frankenstein’s. In addition, having the two central actors alternate their roles helps reinforce the doppelganger nature of Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.
Emphasizing that Shelley’s work is a novel of ideas, the adaptors have incorporated the role of the scientific and industrial revolutions underpinning its narrative structure, as well as highlighting issues like the responsibility of parents and the nature of good and evil. They describe their adaptation of “Frankenstein” not as a story about what it means to be a monster, but rather one that explores what it means to be human. Uniformly praised by critics, the National Theatre version of “Frankenstein” promises to deliver a tour de force of cerebral thrills and chills appropriate for Halloween weekend.
“Enough Said,” the romantic comedy starring James Gandolfini and Julia Louis Dreyfus, will share screen time with “Frankenstein” at the Film Center over the weekend. Featured in the Classic Film Night series next week is “Loves of a Blonde,” the 1965 film from the Czech New Wave directed by Milos Forman.
“Frankenstein,” Thursday, Oct. 31, 7:30 pm; Friday, Nov. 1, and Sunday, Nov. 3, 4 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 children under 14. For tickets and information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.